Dreamt up by ancient Phoenicians and dismissed as French black sheep for decades, the colorful port city of Marseille in France’s south is a blistering hot place to be these days.
With a dynamo cultural scene, brilliant new museums and a diverse but dynamic gastronomy that venerates the Mediterranean sun and the sea, Marseille can do almost no wrong these days. This is France’s third-largest city after Paris and Lyon, and the country’s traditional “ugly duckling” has blossomed since 2013 when it bagged the honor of European City of Culture. Fast-forward to the 2024 Summer Olympics in the French capital when fashionably edgy, too-cool-for-school Marseille will host the prestigious sailing events and you’re in for a good time.
Visionary art and architecture usurped the city’s charismatic soul in the 1950s with Le Corbusier’s La Cité Radieuse, a futuristic but eminently functional apartment block building that is a design icon today. In any other city, rambling around open-air art on the rooftop of Le MAMO or snorkeling between seabed sculptures at the underwater Musée Subaquatique would be considered eclectic. Not in Marseille.
Check out our favorite things to see and do in Marseille and get ready for a French adventure in the gateway to Provence.
Marseille’s dining scene is booming, exciting and cutting edge. At gastronomic restaurant AM—hailed by Forbes at the end of last year as one of the “coolest places to eat at in 2022”—Congo-born cult chef Alexandre Mazzia dazzles with extraordinary flavors, served to just 24 lucky diners in his minuscule Michelin-starred kitchen which gained a rare third star in 2021 (the only one in France to do so that year). A few blocks away in the same un-glam residential neighborhood, female chef Coline Faulquier at Signature woos budget-conscious foodies with a clever half-portion option and sensational lunch menus mirroring, to epicurean perfection, seasonal goodies in Marseille markets. Not surprisingly, she also gained her first Michelin star last year.
Raucous street markets and traditional corner shops have always been of utmost importance to locals in this busy port city. Charlotte Crousillat was way ahead of the curve when she opened Carlotta, a plant-based restaurant and épicerie (fine grocery store and deli), three years ago. Thanks to the pandemic, épicerie dining is now the hottest thing since sliced bread. At courtyard-styled Jogging Épicerie, in the trendy same-name concept and fashion store on rue Paradis, guest chefs work with local farmers and fishermen to cook up fantastic lunches bursting with short-circuit, sustainable and invariably organic produce. In hipster St-Victor, wildly popular organic épicerie Les Pissenlits—The Dandelions—on rue Sainte now fuels its very own zero-kilometer deli-restaurant, Roquette, at No 102 on the same street. Sensational grassroots cuisine is likewise the USP of Tuba, with tables on the rocks in the fishing hamlet of Les Goudes.
Pastis-spiked cocktails and a sassy spin on Marseille’s traditional bouillabaisse (fish stew) are pulling in punters thick and fast at Splendido, a contemporary Italian trattoria with party vibe unveiled by Paris-based Big Mamma in February 2022. Then there’s upstart chef Ludovic Turac at Une Table, au Sud, a Paris-trained dynamo who we followed on a tour of Marseille in 2020.
Dive straight into the heart and soul of Marseille at the Vieux Port—the vibrant old port where the port city’s rich history began with Greek traders in 600 B.C. Fishermen sell their catch each morning on the quays here and boats ferry tourists to and from the Îles du Frioul—city views alone from the islands are worth the ride. Or head uphill to iconic Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde for a splendid, 360-degree, bird’s eye panorama.
North of the Vieux Port, contemporary Marseille bursts into life at MUCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations)—an architectural landmark by Rudy Ricciotti. A little further north in edgy Joliette, 19th-century industrial warehouses in the revitalized docks lure a trendy crowd with hip boutiques, galleries and the lively Le Mx—Musée Pernod Ricard, dedicated to the history and culture of pastis, Marseille’s signature aniseed-flavored aperitif. Enjoy drinks afterwards at The Food Club, or back at MUCEM in Fort St-Jean’s superlative Bar sur la Mer with terrace gazing seductively out to sea.
Come dusk, follow the in crowd west of the Vieux Port to St-Victor, a fashionable ‘hood laden with addresses to entertain after dark. Sampling the local firewater at Pastis & Olives, a pastis bar on electric rue Sainte is a Marseille rite of passage.
Marseille’s smart new kid on the block, at home in the city’s revitalized port district La Joliette, ticks all the right boxes: stylish, functional and wonderfully affordable. Paris-based architecture studio Karawitz designed the color-bold interior awash in Mediterranean sunshine: think seaside palettes of burnt ochre, gold and turquoise mixed with oversized wicker lampshades, decorative arabesque motifs, lush cacti and pale wood fittings. A guest kitchen allows families to mix and match dining out with unstuffy home cooking; the huge hybrid bar-lounge demands downtime; and pretty much everybody can’t get enough of the games room (pool and footie tables) and leafy courtyard with pétanque pitch. Spacious, cheery rooms address every combo – single to family room and dorm.
A golden ticket to complete immersion in the big blue Med, The Seaside couldn’t be more aptly named. Clinging dramatically to the coastal road, a pebble throw from the bronzed beach-volley players of Plage des Catalans, this boutique address promises dreamy sea views as wake-up call in 19 rooms – each one has a balcony or terrace staring dreamily out to the island-speckled sea. Don’t be deceived by the listed Art Deco façade, impeccably restored under the expert guidance of Marseille architect Yvann Pluskwa. Fashionably minimalist interiors soothe with cool whites and washed-out wood befitting of an up-to-the minute seaside retreat. Organic Ren Skincare products, rooftop pool, spa and Mediterranean kitchen restaurant complete the flawless ensemble.